Zero Dark Thirty and GUMSHOE

by Robin D Laws

GUMSHOE in its various iterations takes the basic investigative structure as seen in TV, movies and fiction and turns it into a platform for roleplaying. The word doing the most work in that statement is basic. Investigative storytelling takes many shapes and outward forms. Any plotline featuring a protagonist’s pursuit of an answer to a question can be considered investigative. By those lights, Oedipus Rex is an investigative narrative, and so is Hamlet. GUMSHOE picks and chooses the investigative structures it adapts, favoring familiarity and playability.

On the first front, it borrows most of its tricks from episodic television and mystery novels. Through omnipresence these examples become easy to emulate. If their basic structures haven’t already imprinted themselves on you after hours of watching and reading, it’s easy enough to find an episode of “Criminal Minds” or copy of a Walter Mosley book to see what you’re shooting for.

To make it into the default GUMSHOE scenario structure, a structural element has to do more than appear in investigative fiction. It must promote game play that most GMs and players will enjoy. The TV show“The Killing” unquestionably follows the solution to a mystery. The American version drove viewers off in droves through the protracted pacing of its first two seasons. The only way to make it more frustrating would be to make a roleplaying game out of it, and establish a structure to guarantee that the PCs sullenly flounder through twenty-six episodes before solving the crime.

Roleplayers want forward movement, meaningful choices and jolts of pace-changing excitement, so that’s what the GUMSHOE structure delivers.

As Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty proves, an investigative narrative can be gripping without all of these elements.

(Since the film recreates the well-known recent events of the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden, I’m not going to worry too much about broad-strokes spoilers here. Still, if you’re the sort who avoids any analysis of a movie you plan to see, you might want to bookmark this article for later.)

Of the three playability elements listed above, Zero Dark Thirty hits us with several visceral episodes of the last, culminating in its recreation of the special forces raid on the Bin Laden compound.

When it comes to forward movement and choice points, the film, as it ought, sets aside the conventions of fictional investigation for the less assuring contours of real life.

Although frequently punctuated by titled chapter breaks, the film divides into three acts, which might be called Torture, Mole and Compound*. Together they might be called Failure, Failure, Success. The Torture act depicts the detainee program, which gets the investigators nowhere. Mole presents the regrouping after that, culminating in a red herring clue leading a secondary character into a trap, the disastrous Camp Chapman bombing. Notably, in each of these acts, the protagonist takes a back seat to other investigators. In the third act, she gets what in GUMSHOE terms we’d call the first real core clue, which connects her to the identity of a bin Laden courier. After further investigation, including a suspenseful vehicle surveillance sequence, he leads them to the compound. Maya, the central character played by Jessica Chastain, has come to the end of her investigation. Now she must use her hard-edged interpersonal abilities to sway her superiors to launch the raid, which we then see play out.

The question in Zero Dark Thirty is not whodunnit, but where is he (so we can kill him)? We know how the story ends, but that doesn’t matter. We’re immersed in a work of experiential cinema, the objective of which is to put us inside the experience of the hunt for Bin Laden. It’s the details of life in various black sites, the CIA building in Langley and most of all the CIA station in the Islamabad embassy that matter here.

Though based on an actual person, Zero Dark Thirty follows the rules of the iconic hero. Unlike a dramatic character, Maya isn’t torn between two emotional poles, which her actions in the story require her to confront and resolve. She’s someone who encounters disorder in the world—that bin Laden remains at large—and overcomes this practical obstacle. She solves this problem by remaining true to her essential self, in this case as a completely determined, obsessive hunter of bin Laden. This both allows her to stay focused on her quarry when pressured to move on, and ultimately sways risk-conscious higher-ups after she locates the compound. (In GUMSHOE terms, she’s using a particularly sharp-elbowed version of the Inspiration ability.)

Unlike a GUMSHOE investigation, we don’t see multiple routes to the solution of the mystery. Instead we get two protracted dead ends and then a single, difficult path to the answer—one that begins with an intuitive interpretation of a long-neglected clue that drops from nowhere. (Note how the script ties the dropping of the clue to the inspiration Maya’s doggedness stirs in someone else.)

Part of this comes down to the central difference between traditional narrative and roleplaying. Standard storytelling arises from inevitability, in which characters follow the one best path through the plot. We aren’t meant to think a story could have unfolded in any other way. In roleplaying, players, whose participation becomes ultimately meaningless without freedom of choice, want to look back and think that they weren’t railroaded—that they could have gone at the central problem in more than one way, or at least in another order, and still arrived at, if not the same conclusion, another equally satisfying one.

Zero Dark Thirty’s structure reflects the drudgery and persistence required in real-life criminal or intelligence investigation. Difficult cases stymie their investigators for months or years until a suddenly discovered fact leads them to the final sequence of telling clues. Red herrings far outnumber viable leads. Success depends on the willingness to wait.

As roleplayers, the depiction of free will and character agency provides greater play value than would the faithful replication of the numbing realities of real-life investigation. Even in fiction we’re willing to contemplate this only so often, when shown to us by someone as skilled in compelling detail as Bigelow or David Fincher. We can engage vicariously with a film like Zero Dark Thirty, but when we sit down at the table to solve a case, we want know that a fictional structure, like the one made explicit by GUMSHOE, will be there to support us.


* You could argue for four acts, with a third investigative act called Courier in between Mole and Compound, but that’s beside the present point.

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